Monday, June 4, 2012

The Clouded Leopard's Secret...

The picture to the left is the cover of The Clouded Leopard's Secret, a book for children written by Karen Povey of the Clouded Leopard Project and illustrated by Heather Hudson.  The book tells the story of Bujang, who grew up near the forest and became a wildlife biologist, and his research on the clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), one of the animals protected in Kerinci Seblat National Park (and other places across Southeast Asia).  Bujang uses camera traps, radio collars, and other methods to learn more about the habits of the clouded leopard, which is rarely photographed and almost never seen.  Karen wrote the beautifully illustrated book to raise awareness about conservation issues and to help raise funds to support field projects across Southeast Asia.  She also gave support to a recent project to translate the book into Indonesian.  The translation was done by my good friend (and Kerinci Seblat National Park mapping officer) Iding Haidir and his lovely wife Nanan Hayati.  The first shipment of 1,500 copies of the translated book arrived at the park office last week, ready to be distributed to local children.

The Clouded Leopard

Map of distribution of two species of clouded leopard from
Clouded Leopard Project website.

Two species of clouded leopards are found in the forests of Southeast Asia.  Clouded leopards are genetically related to lions, tigers, and jaguars (they are more distantly related to other leopards) but they are the smallest of the big cats.  Because clouded leopards are quite rare and tend to be solitary, they are relatively under-studied.  Clouded leopards mainly inhabit tropical rain forests, but they've also been spotted in logged forests, mangrove swamps, and grasslands.  They weigh between 35 and 50 pounds (15.8-22.7 kilograms) on average and take their English name from the markings on their pelt.  They have been known to live as long as 17 years in captivity, but in the wild their lifespan would be shorter.  Clouded leopards are excellent climbers and their short legs and low center of gravity enable them to climb up and down trees like squirrels.  Clouded leopards prey on birds, monkeys deer, and wild pigs and do most of their hunting on the ground.  The animal's territory ranges from 20-50 square kilometers, so in order to maintain viable populations a significant amount of undisturbed, protected forest is needed. 

Clouded leopards have the largest canine teeth relative to their body size of all large cats.  I swiped this picture
without permission from Flikr.  The excellent photo was taken by a guy that goes by the handle of Nikographer.  

Clouded leopards are classified as "vulnerable" (one step above endangered) by the IUCN, though the US Fish and Wildlife Service classifies them as endangered.  They The are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement effective since 1975 which aims to end trafficking in endangered species.  Because of limited field research efforts, it is impossible to accurately estimate the extent of remaining populations of clouded leopards, though experts think that their numbers are declining.

Saving Sang Macan Dahan

Photo from CLP
Karen Povey, who also works at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, told me in an email that the goal of the Clouded Leopard Project (CLP) is to raise awareness of clouded leopard and other wild cat conservation issues in Southeast Asia.  "So many of these species are unknown to both local folks and people around the world that we are committed to raising their profile," she said.  The CLP has programs where interested folks can "adopt a camera trap", which enables researchers to deploy more active-sensor cameras in the field, which allows them to gather more data about the habits of the elusive cat.  You can also adopt a wild clouded leopard, with proceeds going to support CLP projects.  Karen told me that the clouded leopard is one of the flagship species at her zoo and that the zoo also has outreach efforts and works in partnership with the CLP.  One of the best things about CLP's approach is that it recognizes the importance of involving researchers and conservationists from countries that have clouded leopards, and they provide funds for projects run by local researchers, as well as support to attend conferences and seminars.  This is really important in places like Indonesia, because often times there isn't enough money in the government's budget to send protected area staff to these events, but in many cases these are the folks that know the most about the clouded leopard (and other animals) and the challenges facing conservationists.  

Another clouded leopard picture I lifted without permission from the net from this site.  

In addition to Iding's translation of The Clouded Leopard's Secret, the CLP organized a mural competition here in Sungai Penuh (where the headquarters of Kerinci Seblat National Park is located).  Twenty groups of two participants each took part in the event, and they were allowed to pick their own themes and genres.  In addition to this competition the CLP provided support for a teacher training workshop here in which local educators learned how to use the Indonesian Wild Cat Teacher's Guide in their classes.  The teachers were also taken to the Temedak Customary Forest (Hutan Adat Temedak) in Keluru here in Kerinci district.  Here they learned about local uses of non-timber forest products.  I myself have personally been to this adat forest and can attest to it being a great example of sustainable forest use by a local community.  

Iding, who has extensive field experience and formal training in conservation, told me that the clouded leopard is one of his favorite animals (the golden cat being the other) because it's still relatively unknown.  He told me that he wants to increase the clouded leopard's profile at the park, because now KSNP is known mainly for its tigers.  He also said that there are occasions where clouded leopards attack goats and other domesticated animals, but tigers get blamed.  This is problematic because the steps taken to mitigate conflicts could be different for tigers and clouded leopards.  Iding hopes that KSNP will become a center for clouded leopard research and is actively working to bring more researchers, both from Indonesia and abroad, to the park.

Iding also explained his philosophy on successful conservation to me.  He said that there are three key elements:

  1. Science-based management backed up by valid research;
  2. Effective law enforcement
  3. Awareness and action on the part of people living in and around the conservation area.  

He said that the first is pretty well developed at KSNP, and while the second is somewhat lacking it's the third area that is most in need of improvement.  He said his goal with the book translation project (and other outreach activities) is to foster a sense of ownership among local people and to make them proud of having the clouded leopard in the park.  He told me that his third point requires the "translation" of scientific and enforcement language into local terms so that villagers can become an active part of conservation.  I asked Iding how he explains the importance of the clouded leopard to villagers, and he said that it is "the front door" to introduce people to the importance of ecosystem health and environmental services.  He explained that in nature there is a balance between predators and prey, and this relationship is part of the larger ecological relationships that exist in the forest.  If this is upset then bad things happen; one of the clearest examples he uses is an increase in deer and wild pig populations, as both of these animals are farm pests but at the same time are food for the clouded leopard.  He told me that Indonesia in general has a lot of vulnerable and endangered species, but this isn't something to be proud of.  Lastly, he situates the clouded leopard in the context of Islam (the people in this area are overwhelmingly Muslim).  He tells them that all creatures are part of Allah's grand design, and even if we don't understand the purpose of a particular animal it is our duty to respect and protect it.  

I really like the story in The Clouded Leopard's Secret because it describes the issue from the local perspective.  Karen made her biologist Indonesian, and so hopefully local kids will be turned on to a new possible career path and start to see the forest and its occupants as a resource and asset.  If you'd like to obtain a copy of the book, you can get it (US$8.95) though the Clouded Leopard Project's website.


Many thanks to Iding Hadir and Karen Povey for chatting with me about clouded leopards and to the Clouded Leopard Project for permission to use information and images from their website.  


  1. Nice, Keith! Thanks for speaking out the words for us!

  2. This is a wonderful discovery! You do beautiful things for the true beauties of this critter!

  3. It is amazing to know that there are some people in the world that want to protect and produce awareness for many unknown animals such as the clouded leopard. Although you provide more than enough information about these animals, I want to ask what your opinions are on the clouded leopard being understudied. Since the clouded leopard is considered the smallest of all the other wild cats (lions, tigers, jaguars), do you think that is the reason why there is rarely any research documented about their existence? During your journeys to the south, have you seen these mysterious creatures? In all respect, I believe that the Clouded Leopard Project is genius and I hope for the best outcome in all of the programs future goals.

  4. Wow what an amazing animal! Not many people realize that such a majestic wild cat is hidden in the forests of south asia. After, reading this article I realize that there are so may endangered species that people (including myself) have never even heard of. I think its incredible that people from around the globe are involved in the Clouded Leopard Project. Personally I started reading the Clouded Leopard Blog months ago after a disturbing story my dad told me about his trip to India. Apparently there was illegal trading of the leopards fur as well as other endangered species. It is so important to raise awareness, because pretty soon species will be extinct forever. I hope other bloggers follow your example and start spreading the word about this wild cat.

  5. In ancient times, people used to hunt 'dangerous' animals that killed other animals (especially humans and their live-stock). This practice pretty much erased many 'dangerous' animals, more so in Europe, Russia, middle-east, northern India. Now, these animals are spreading into Himalayas, Russia and into Europe. I saw one such cat in lower-mountains near Rishikesh, India, during day, chasing 2-3 deers, in month of May, 2010. (the map above needs some correction).

  6. Awesome!! The Clouded Leopard is a very beautiful creature. I am truly amazed by its huge set of teeth compared to its so big body. I am happy to hear that biologist Karen Povey published a book about these beautiful creatures that are almost endangered, for children of all walks of life to gain knowledge of. Thanks again for all your hard work and time you put into these journeys you've been on they seem very exciting.